Sunday, January 30, 2011
The 2011 Sundance Film Festival ends today and I have this to say about it.
Actually I have nothing to say as I wasn’t there. But I do have a question.
What percentage, do you think, of the films screened for the first time at Sundance will be seen for the first time via DVD, VOD, Blu-Ray, Netflix Instant Watch, rented from iTunes or Amazon, seen on a free-with ads-site like SnagFilms or Hulu, or perhaps more significantly, downloaded as a torrent or from a Rapidshare-type service?
If that question intrigues or concerns you, then Sundance wasn’t the only significant film-related event of January 2011. Here are six others that will play a major role in the way people watch movies in the future.
January 6:: More than 80 iPad-style tablets are introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
Is the electronics industry is betting the bank on making the Tablet a mass market product like the DVD player and Smart Phone?
If they succeed, what will that mean for Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, Hulu, as well as sites like SnagFilms, Mubi, IndiePix, etc.? Is this product going to be a game-changer for online video?
January 18: The FCC approves the NBCU merger. Comcast agrees to give up management rights of Hulu, while retaining their co-ownership with News Corp and Disney.
What does it mean to the way TV and films are watched online when a cable company owns such a monumental amount of content?
Even if Comcast doesn’t have management rights over Hulu, what’s to stop them from pulling out “SNL,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and the rest anyway? Will managing Hulu even matter? (see below).
January 20: Amazon buys LOVEFiLM, Europe’s Netflix. LOVEFiLM, has 1.6 million members and operates in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.
Amazon has the advantage of being able to integrate LOVEFiLM into their Amazon stores in the UK and elsewhere. With their vast resources they have the potential to be the dominant player in international online video.
This is not an easy business, as it is complicated to secure rights to major studio movies for a host of different territories. Apple has been selling online video through many of their international iTunes stores for years. Netflix expanded into Canada in September where it has been an enormous success, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings has suggested that he has plans to expand Netflix to other countries.
Online video outside the US is on the move like never before. Has its time finally come? What will this mean for a film industry that is still trying to figure out how online video will work here?
January 26: Torrentfreak reports that Google has begun censoring file-sharing-related terms. Per Torrent Freak’s story, search engine results for "BitTorrent," "RapidShare," "Megaupload" will be filtered out from its instant search and auto-complete search features. As of now, the filter does not affect full Google search results.
The Pirate Bay and the rest are pikers when it comes to finding Torrents and compared to Google. Will they extend their filter to full searches, which is the only thing that matters? Assuming they do and their filter is effective, will this provide serious assistance to the efforts of the MPAA and the RIAA to stem online piracy?
January 27: Netflix releases its fourth quarter profit report and subscriptions are up 166% (3.08 million) from fourth quarter 2009 (1.1 million). They end 2010 with 20 million subscribers, up 63% from the previous year. All signs are that this growth will continue. To put this in perspective, there are about 120 million households in the US with a TV.
January 27: The Wall Street Journal Reports Strife at Hulu
The Journal reports that Hulu founder Jason Kilar threatened to quit if the price on the “Hulu Plus” subscription service didn’t go from $9.99 monthly to $4.99. A compromise was made at $7.99.
While Comcast isn’t involved in decisions on Hulu’s future, Fox and Disney are increasingly feeling that Hulu, may be cannibalizing their cable profits. Disney has blind-sided Kilar by ”quietly” setting up their own Hulu-type service,
The Journal also reports:
In what would be a major shift in direction, Hulu management has discussed recasting Hulu as an online cable operator that would use the Web to send live TV channels and video-on-demand content to subscribers, say people familiar with the talks. The new service, which is still under discussion, would mimic the bundles of channels now sold by cable and satellite operators, the people said.
In other words, they are discussing killing Hulu as we know it.
If they really did this, instead of a site with free movies with very few commercials, it would be a subscription service with all the commercials you see on cable. Sound appealing to you? Personally, I’d rather watch my cable TV using my DVR.
Hulu is not the real issue. Worries about Hulu are basically worries about the future of cable TV. The real question is: can the studios hold onto the highly profitable cable business model they have today? Or will the January I’ve written about above be followed by a February and a March and an April and a May and on and on forever in a never-ending evolution of the way new technology, new business concepts and the internet affect the way we watch movies and TV?
Can the major studios and the cable companies catch all the fireflies that are buzzing around their heads?
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Robert Redford and the author on the set of “The Milagro Beanfield War”
It was the end of the summer of 1986. I’d only been back in New York City a short while after spending a good portion of the year out of town on publicity jobs, first in Belize for Peter Weir’s “The Mosquito Coast,” followed by a stint in Miami for Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I was exhausted, I had money in the bank, and I was making arrangements to pull up stakes in New York and move to Los Angeles. I wasn’t looking for work until I got a call from legendary publicist Lois Smith.
“Hello ducks,” she said. “Bob Redford is making a movie in New Mexico. It’s called ‘The Milagro Beanfield War.’ I’ve told him about you and I’d like to set up a meeting. Are you interested?”
So much for for my plans. I was going to meet with Robert Redford, and maybe even work with him! Woohoo!
Still, I was uncomfortable with this whole “Bob” thing. While I could see how Lois would call him “Bob,” as she’d known him for decades, I couldn’t imagine me calling him “Bob.” It made me think of high school, when my friends and I used to joke around like we were pals with Ingmar Bergman, and drop comments from our good buddy “Ing.” “Bob” seemed like the wrong name for Robert Redford anyway.
I only knew two things about Redford. The first was his reputation for being late. The second was that he had a playful sense of humor, as reflected in the series of practical jokes he and Paul Newman were always playing on each other.
When I arrived at his office at the appointed time, Lois put me in a tiny private office, and informed me that he might be—surprise!—a bit late. I pulled out my stash of reading materials from my shoulder bag: the latest New Yorker, my copy of the “Milagro Beanfield War” novel, that day’s Times, even a few sections of the Sunday Times I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet. I spread everything out on the desk like a picnic blanket, enough stuff to keep anybody occupied for a leisurely weekend at the beach. And then I buried myself in the Arts & Leisure. I‘d barely read a few articles when I looked up to see a man standing in a doorway, grinning at me.
“Come on, I’m not that late!” he said.
I stood up to shake his hand.
“I’m Bob Redford,” he said.
“Hi Bob,” I said. (It just slipped out somehow.) “Good to meet you.”
I believe my little prank started my working relationship with Redford on the right foot. Yeah, I got the job, and even worked with him a few times after that. Some of working with Redford involved waiting; all of it was interesting, challenging, and fun. After all, if Robert Redford isn’t worth waiting for…who is?
Sunday, January 16, 2011
One of the biggest misfortunes of my life was being taught logic in high school. It provided an impractical and counter-productive foundation for the illogical world I’ve lived in ever since.
In logic class, I and my fellow ill-fated classmates were taught a series of formulas called “tautologies,” which are always true. There is no possibility of negating them. Ever. One is called Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. This means that it is always a fallacy to assume that because one thing happened, followed by another thing, then the first thing caused the next. In other words: if I clap my hands just before dawn, that’s not why the sun came up.
I will quickly apply Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc to the current controversy surrounding the shootings in Tucson, Arizona, and then, as this is a movie blog, get onto my primary topic, “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”
As to the former, I believe a lot of people of various political persuasions are coming around to the idea that there’s no evidence that Jared Lee Loughlin was motivated by politics and uncivil dialogue. But the logic of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc takes us a step further than that and says that even if he regularly watched Limbaugh fan and watched FOX News, that alone is not enough to make the assumption that that was responsible for making him do what he did.
One of the things I usually like about Bill Maher is that he calls out the absurdity of people who don’t believe in evolution, global warming, or having a President who was born in the U.S. But in this case, like many politicians and commentators, he followed his preconceptions rather than logic, and blamed the right wing. In this he mirrors the illogic of conservatives who proclaim that President Bush kept the country safe. These things fly in the face of Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, as do thousands of other suppositions that are the bedrock of conventional thought.
Okay, now I will proceed, with grandiose rhetorical overstatement, to “The Myth of the Ticket-Selling Movie Star.”
A Ticket-Selling movie star is thought by many to possess a persona that is so appealing that people will go see a movie just because they are in it. If the actor doesn’t play the persona, then it often doesn’t work. Angelina Jolie’s star persona is said to be in action roles, and the evidence supports this: “A Mighty Heart” (9 M), “Changeling,” ($36M), versus “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” ($186M), “The Good Shepherd” ($60M), “Wanted” ($134M), “Salt,” ($118M), and “The Tourist” ($62M). Likewise, nobody is surprised when “Greenberg” fails to become a hit simply because Ben Stiller is in it. While the correlations of genuine movie star persona to grosses doesn’t always work, but it certainly happens enough so that most people make the reasonable judgment that one caused the other.
Reasonable, yes, and very possible true. But not logical.
But what other explanation or explanations could there possibly be? In fact it is possible to look at the information in the previous paragraph and draw a slightly different conclusion.
Perhaps we have it backwards. Perhaps it is the movies that draw the audiences and the movie stars are people who have successfully managed to star in those movies.
No matter funny Ben Stiller is, no matter how much people love his humor, if all he did in his career was “Greenberg”-type movies, he would never be called someone whose name could fill theatre. Likewise, “A Mighty Heart” and “Changeling” were not conceived as blockbusters, and if Angelina Jolie had solely followed that path, then she would also not be seen as a ticket-selling movie star.
Let’s say you are one of those two people, and have gotten to the point where you get sent scripts, walk into offices, and have lunches. If you choose project A, followed by B, C, D—you’re a star who puts butts in seats. You choose project E, followed by F, G, H—you’re not a ticket-selling star, and that’s that. For years, Robert De Niro chose the kind of artistic projects that weren’t likely to make huge profits, until one day, he decided to make different choices and now his films make a fockin’ lot of money.
John Travolta certainly found his winning persona with “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease.” He had it all, but he did not choose wisely after that. There are also many people who had a flash point of success of opportunity, or many years of being considered capable of putting butts in seats, but then dropped off the list, either because of emotional issues, or because they simply had no wish to be stars, and deliberately avoided those kinds of roles.
The commonly-believed perception that you sell tickets means you get offered projects of all kinds, including exploitatively commercial ones, as well as prestige films with great scripts, directors, and co-stars. Once you are in that position, what do you do? Are your instincts sound? Or do you listen to seasoned advisors who presumably give you sound advice? There are actors known for turning down a list of the some of the biggest blockbusters ever made, and there are also actors that are known for tying up scripts for years while they contemplate if they are “right.”This doesn’t mean that ticket-selling stars pick good movies, just commercial ones, as Nicholas Cage’s career demonstrates well.
I saw terror in the trailers of more than one of these presumed ticket-sellers. Some actors are not the most emotionally stable or confident people and it is often a very frightening thing for them to go to the set. While others see these people as money in the bank, for them stardom is like hurtling out-of-control down a highway, where one slip-up might take them over a cliff. They do not want to lose what they have. And of course, eventually most of them do.
If the notion of ticket-selling movie stars is in fact a puffed up illusion similar to the funhouse games of Wall Street—and I’m not saying it is—the hyper-inflation of actor’s salaries is lucrative for the people who live off of percentages. Larger actor salaries means larger budgets overall which increase studio overhead fees, also calculated by percentages. Many of the most powerful agents become studio heads, and the money is passed back and forth between members of the club.
The mammoth salaries are obviously very nutritious for the actors, and they also can be useful for producers, as they can often get the green light for movies simply by having a single person agree to play the lead role.
I could go on and on with the advantages for many people of this idea of the ticket-selling star, but ultimately, whether that idea is true or not is irrelevant to the subject of this blog, which is logical thinking, or more precisely, the lack of it. I believe I have offered a plausible secondary explanation for why certain actors always seem to be in high-grossing movies. My actual opinion is the real story is a combination of the two, and probably some other factors.
I believe—but logically do not know for sure—that Will Smith’s presence in a film will sell tickets. Still there’s no doubt that he also has impressive commercial instincts. It’s fair to say that he had something to do with selecting and developing “The Karate Kid” (worldwide gross $359M) for his son Jaden, and as a music industry pro, overseeing his daughter Willow’s chart-topping record, “Whip My Hair.” The kids are talented, but they are too young to make these kinds of judgments all by themselves. Will Smith has a magic touch, whether he’s in a movie or not. Since I worked with him on “Six Degrees of Separation,” I’ve thought that Will Smith was as likable and charming a person you could ever meet, but honestly I never dreamed he would have achieved the level of success he has. If people go to movies because he is in them, it’s because of all the hard work he’s put in to get to where he is.
Sunday, January 09, 2011
“With his naturalistic delivery and relaxed animal physicality Mr. Wahlberg doesn’t seem to be acting, while a twitchy, jumpy Mr. Bale all but pinwheels off the screen. Mr. Wahlberg’s acting seems more a matter of being, while Mr. Bale’s appears self-consciously performed.”
--Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
By what criteria do we judge the best acting?
Is it something we describe with words like bold, inventive, brazen, adventurous, commanding, fearless , and tour-de-force? Or…
If we are taken out of our immersion in the story by a conscious awareness that “this is a great, Academy Award worthy performance,” is anything lost?
What is the purpose of acting? If we notice ACTING, is it gone? I don’t know the answer to this, and maybe there isn’t one. But it’s a question worth exploring.
I have often wondered what would happen if all the critics, non-acting members of the film industry, all the evaluators of who is worthy of praise, and prognosticators of who should win prizes, if all these people took some acting classes. Would they see things any differently?
Ever notice how there is often a “surprise” nominee or winner of one of the acting Academy Awards? Someone that was barely recognized or even ignored by the critics and the award-giving groups? These appraisals come from the illustrious and very tiny list of actors who are in the Academy, not the 93,000 voting members of the Screen Actors Guild. What yardsticks do these very special people use when they judge acting?
Obviously, big budget movies need movie stars, and movie stars are weighted down by our memories of their previous performances and our knowledge of their private lives. It’s very hard for them to truly disappear into a role, and you certainly can’t blame them for that.
Likewise some very good stories are gigantic ones, as over-sized, featuring multi-layered characters facing extraordinary circumstances. Very few actors have what it takes to play characters like this, and for this, we give praise and awards.
But how big an achievement is it to look like you’re not doing anything? If you succeed, you’re fooling everyone, not an easy thing to do, and not a way to get noticed. If you’re one of the rare people who can do it, you bring something enormous to the power of the film…but no prize for you!
You could say, “I know all about Mark Wahlberg’s life and he is that guy in ‘The Fighter.’ He’s just playing himself.” I would ask you to go in front of a camera and say lines and play someone who is “just like yourself.” Good luck. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Could Wahlberg have played Bale’s part? Obviously he would pull the twitch factor down many notches, but I think he would have been sensational—absolutely real, just in a less theatrical way. And he might have gotten a nomination, as he did for “The Departed.” But could Bale play Wahlberg’s part? I don’t think so. That role requires a quietude that I don’t think a baroque actor like Bale can muster.
With a few exceptions, I love and admire the 2010 movie performances that are being touted for awards. My favorite is Jeon Do-yeon in Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine.” It’s a whopper of a role and she is astounding. But unlike all the other great performances I saw last year, hers is in my favorite movie. And I think it’s because of Song Kang-ho, who has a not terribly exciting role. He plays kind of a shlub, not too bright, nothing special about him at all. But without Song’s performance, the movie would be unbearable.
If you see this film knowing nothing about Korean cinema, I doubt you would guess that Song is a superstar, somebody whose name on a film guarantees an audience, the star of such films as “Joint Security Area,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” and “Thirst.” But at the height of his career, he takes this supporting role of a shmo and he plays him like a shmo. Perfectly. And the blend of his ordinariness with Jeon’s intensity makes for a masterpiece.
Unlike Lee’s previous films “Peppermint Candy,” and “Oasis” (maybe too culture-bound), I think this movie could easily be remade in the U.S. But if that happened, it’s unlikely that an American star on Song’s level would accept this role. And if they did, I doubt they would have the capacity to do it as modestly.
So… what’s my point? I certainly don’t want to disparage the actors who hit the ball out of the park this year, and gave me such movie-going pleasure. I’m just paying homage to the actors who made me forget there was a thing called acting. They tricked me, and I am very grateful to them for doing that.
I’d like to end with a quote from the exquisite Jeon Do-yeon, that I found in IMDb:
"I enjoy acting so much that I have no need or desire to be called a great actor. This is partly my personality, but also the fact that I get so absorbed in acting, to where I can't see or think of anything else. I can't tell you what great acting is, but for me, it is to give everything you have with honesty, sincerity and persistence.
Sunday, January 02, 2011
When 2009 passed into 2010, I didn’t have time to celebrate the new year. I spent those hours focused on a business project I finally was about to launch--a website called SpeedCine.
I had worked from six am to 11 pm six and a half days a week for a year and a half, and finally it was ready for my early January presentation. It was a complete realization of my dream. It worked perfectly. It did everything I had ever hoped it would do.
There was only one problem. Very few people were interested in the service I was providing.
It was a catastrophe. After briefly considering going all out and risking everything, I decided to face reality, cut my losses, and a month later I shut it down.
Since I closed SpeedCine, many wonderful things have come my way I did a lot of publicity writing, which I love (starting my fifth Woody Allen film now). I reestablished my friendship with Errol Morris, who I hadn’t seen in seven years. I reconnected with many other old friends when I went to Toronto to do publicity on Errol’s film “Tabloid.” I got a $1500 data bill from AT&T, and even that was great. Being overcharged by AT&T put me in contact with a lot of interesting people, from a guy at the FCC to a nice women who worked for AT&T’s CEO. And after the heavy traffic that my AT&T posts brought me, twice as many people now read my blog. And I had the honor of working with the brilliant Whit Stillman while he was making his new film “Damsels in Distress,” and met its star, Greta Gerwig, one of my favorite actresses.
Writing this blog was another highlight of 2010. I’ve gradually surrendered to the idea of it being more and more autobiographical. This was a big risk for me. I’d previously thought there would be no reason to read my blog unless there was something involving films or filmmaking in there somewhere, but oddly enough, I have received a lot more praise than criticism for doing this.
When I closed SpeedCine, I moved the clutter away from my desktop Mac and put my synthesizer back up there (it had sat on the floor for eighteen months). I could compose music again. I could fool around with making short films for YouTube.
And my wife appreciated my liberation from the computer monitor. We had a lot more time to enjoy life together.
So one door closed at the beginning of 2010 and many other doors opened. It’s a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they are often true. (Note that the previous sentence is an accurate cliché about clichés.)
The last few years have been very tough for myself and many of my friends, but I embark on 2011 with high hopes. I wish them for all of you as well.